Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ancient Delos - Wind, Cats, Beheadings and Piracy in Classical Greek Suburbia

I liked desolate, windblown Delos as much as the Acropolis of Athens but for different reasons. Ancient Athens is a place I dreamed of visiting; the island of Delos was a surprise. While the Acropolis can be overwhelming, the relatively pedestrian, expansive ruins of Delos are more approachable. The site gives a glimpse of how people lived their daily routine between the 7th and 1st centuries BC, in a working town of approximately 20,000 people. The surroundings of the Acropolis were possibly much like Delos' residential and commercial areas 25 centuries ago, but they are now buried under modern Athens. Conjoined in my recent memory, the two sites when contrasted give a fuller picture of life in antiquity.

The agora of the Italians dates from the late Hellenistic period and was used by merchants from what is now Italy. It is near the commercial harbour of Delos. Mt. Kynthos rises in the distance. There, according to the Greek myth, the Titaness Leto gave birth to Apollo. It is also the birthplace of his twin Artemis, also known by her alternate name of "Kynthia," (Cynthia today) after this place. Just as interesting to me was the well-engineered drainage trench on the floor of the agora. Ruins extend up the flanks of Mt. Kythnos, giving a sense of the scale of this site.

What is missing today from Delos is the people. Athens still has a surging humanity familiar to its monuments; workaday Delos is frozen in time, and our touristic fascination with its ancient suburbia would be alien to its ghosts. The island is now deserted but for cats and a few caretakers, and the site's breadth means large groups of visitors can disperse into scattered, intimate groupings, voices carried over the wind. Otherwise, there is the howling silence of rustling grass and blowing sand.

Access is via a choppy, thirty-minute tender from the cruise port of Mykonos, or a chartered boat or ferry from Mykonos town (Hora). The terrain is rugged, dry and scoured, a granite knob of low hills befitting hermits and religious ascetics. Parched grass and diverse, gust-sculpted bushes struggle in sheltered swales between rocky undulations. Everywhere, the surrounding sea protests this resistant outpost with a buzzing of angry, bursting whitecaps. Its scent rushes across the island, and my hair soon took on a wild coiffure shaped by salty spray and grit.

Heading towards Delos from the island of Mykonos. The "mist" is vapor whipped up by the wind.
Our guided excursion of course cost a little more, but the basic entrance fee is a bargain at 5€. 

Now a weedy, circular depression, the sacred central pond is gone, drained to control mosquitoes (some sources say bacteria). Many familiar details of the abandoned residences echo of their past, however: marble butcher's blocks, kitchen tables, an obvious fish-cutting board with a hole for drainage, wells and atrium mosaics. In some places the walls still have pigment. Much of the statuary is housed in the on-site archeological museum though, to protect it from the elements. Delos is not kind to contact lenses. The sustained high winds kept it relatively cooler today, but I can imagine the long-term erosive impact of such frequent sand blasts. There was no real need to fear malaria in these parts; any mosquitoes would assuredly blow to mainland Europe.

In some places the stucco is still on the walls. In others, we could see 2500 year old graffiti. Funny how in modern Athens I thought the graffiti was mostly crude debasement; when it's ancient graffiti it's culture. We also saw our first ancient brothel. Many, many brothels followed over the next couple weeks.

This floor mosaic wouldn't look out of place on Long Island or Perth, Australia. House of the Trident.

Some restored mosaics in the museum.

House of Dionysus, a 2nd century BC private house named for the floor mosaic of winged Dionysus riding a panther.

This was used as a fish cutting table. You can see a small hole at the back left of the table that acted as a drain. I've seen wooden tables like this in many place by the sea today. I remember fishermen cutting their catch on tables like this when I was growing up on Long Island.

In the amphitheater. The curvilinear channel at the base of the steps was designed to transport rainwater out of the venue. This picture might not show it, but Delos is a place to hold on to your hat.

Pottery fragments were caught up in the stucco. I picture most of the buildings to have had smooth pink walls on the exterior and interior when the city of 20,000 people was at its height. There were few or no windows in the buildings; even with its advanced sewage/brown-water control system, ancient streets couldn't have smelled very pleasant, and windowless houses kept the smell out.

The later classical Romans were more famous as engineers, but I can imagine being generally happy in some of the ancient Greek homes we saw today, and I was impressed with the obvious civic ingenuity, especially in controlling runoff and waste water via gravity. Walls of the houses and shops themselves, at least the large ones, were built to last. I couldn't help thinking a few homes would fetch multimillion dollar price tags today, if rebuilt with modern conveniences. Some still offer better shelter than dwellings many poverty-stricken people call home today. Such an enlightened sewage control system would benefit third world communities currently ravaged by water-borne pathogens. I couldn't help but think much of the knowledge still lingering here has never been found in some parts of the world, or it is withheld.

The sewer system was very well designed to flush grey-water out to sea. My engineering instincts appreciate things like this.

Thomas at the "House of Hermes," one of the more elaborate and well-preserved residential structures on Delos. Two floors have been restored from multiple stories anchored into the hillside. The ruins of Delos extend all the way to the shoreline in the distance. In the upper right can be seen the Archaeological Museum of Delos.

A sign of wealth, the decorative marble pieces or finishings in some structures were not locally derived. They contrast crisply with the native building stone. I'm surprised more wasn't carted away in later centuries for permanent "safekeeping" at the British Museum. Considering the hardscrabble surroundings, a supply of exotic building materials and the daily staples required to support 20,000 residents for seven centuries must have been an enormous logistical effort in commerce for those days. But since it was a sacred site with no defenses, a few pirates with arsonist leanings were enough to bring the whole place to ruin in 69 BC. Now there is nary a roof, and the polygonal network of building interiors is exposed to the sun, reminiscent of cells in a crumbling, barren honeycomb.

House of Dionysus. Marble isn't natural to this island, so the raw materials for this doorway had to be imported.

When there are still tables in the houses, it seems a little more intimate. The past isn't so far away.

Delos is a place of walls and foundations; the tops of anything haven't fared very well. Even a lonely pair of statues were missing their heads. Did these so-honored spouses realize how close such foreign visitors would come to seeing their likeness after 25 centuries?

The "house of Cleopatra." Behind the columns you can see the statue of a rich woman, her features lost forever. Money can't buy you immortality. In this house, French archaeologists discovered headless statues of its Athenian owners, Dioskourides and his wife Cleopatra--not the famed Egyptian seductress; it was sculpted in 138 BC after the death of the husband. Dioskourides stands behind one of the pillars.

Delos is the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, so along with living quarters, gathering places and shopping areas, we viewed a number of temples--ruins now--that made this an important religious center of the ancient Aegean, and one of the renowned archeological sites of Greece. And, it was a swinging sacred place judging by the number of enormous phallic statuary dedicated to Dionysus. These heads were "bobbited" sometime since antiquity, but there is no mistaking them.

Dionysus was the god of wine and the life-force. On either side of this platform in his honor, a pillar supports a colossal phallus, the symbol of Dionysus. Was the sculptor aware that too much wine dulls the life-force?

And, there are of course resident desperate cats. Many, many cats, apparently brought to the island to control snakes. I didn't see any snakes, which would explain why the cats are so skinny now. My son Tom photographed every one he could find and petted half of them.

For some people the primary attraction of Ancient Greece is cats.

I pulled him away for a short while to hike up to the Temple of Isis. Delos was a melting pot in its heyday, apparently, with a mix of religions and cultures. Little red pottery sherds are scattered everywhere. In places the paths are almost red with them. Broken fragments of pottery appear to have been important components for lending strength to the cement skin still plastering houses as well. But in most places the streets and squares are paved with tightly fitting flagstones in a patio-style. I wish my pavements were as effective in keeping down the weeds.

Thomas climbs towards the Temple of Isis (middle background). Multiclutural Delos had temples to several deities, and the world's oldest known synagogue is located here. Mount Kynthos is in the distance. I wish I'd had a polarizer for this one.

I saw one young tourist in the group with an E-days t-shirt. I approached him and verified he's a just-graduated fellow alumnus of Colorado School of Mines, originally from Golden. I think that's the first time I've randomly encountered another CSM grad outside of professional functions or conferences. He didn't seem too interested in chatting, and appeared wary; he must've had bad dealings with the geology department.

Of course, oblivious idiots are never far away, even on remote desert islands. One guy was climbing over a wall of the Temple of Isis so his buddy could take a picture of the conquest, little bits of rubble giving way under his weight. How much has incrementally worn away through centuries of previous trespassings? I had to agree with a woman bystander who simply stated "@#$%^&* tourists." These descendants of the ancient pirates, I wouldn't be surprised if their pockets were full of pottery. I can hear the ghosts of Delos whispering on the wind, hoping the new vandals will blow away like the mosquitoes.

The Terrace of the Lions, dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos shortly before 600 BC. Today only seven of the original nine to twelve Naxian lions remain. One is in Venice, which has a love affair with lions. These are carefully formed reproductions; the originals are close by in the Archaeology Museum of Delos. The pedestals are modern creations.

Statue of the god Hermes.

It's still all Greek to me.

August 11, 2013